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Fueled by low interest rates and an improving economy, Canada's housing market finally slowed down this summer after setting records for new and existing home sales. Although interest rates are creeping up, most analysts think the market will rebound again in the fall.

The housing boom also created Canada's best mortgage market in 20 years, and competition for mortgage business is growing increasingly fierce among financial services, from banks to independent mortgage brokers. If you are looking for a mortgage, or it's time to renew an existing one, you're in the driver's seat.

Recently released figures from Statistics Canada show that in 2000, two-thirds of Canadian households owned the home they lived in, and that half of them were mortgage-free. More than half of the rural owners had no mortgage, because of the tradition of passing on the family farm to the next generation, and lower land prices. Only 30 per cent of urban dwellers were mortgage-free. Not surprisingly, the older the homeowner, the more likely they were to have paid off their mortgage debt.

Owners with mortgages spent 25 per cent of after-tax income on housing. Studies have shown that most people, when renewing their mortgages, tend to stick with the same lender. Many of these borrowers probably could do much better financially by shopping around.

One of the latest innovative mortgage promotions comes from HLC Home Loans Canada (www.hlcmortgages.com) and is aimed at the sub-prime market.

"The sub-prime or non-conforming mortgage market in Canada is continuing to expand," says Andy Charles, president of HLC Home Loans Canada. "These are people who are self-employed or have had some small credit issues in their background."

HLC's new initiative promises that if the company can't provide a mortgage deal for a Realtor's client, and one of its competitors does, HLC will pay the Realtor $500.

"We're putting our money where our mouth is," says Charles. "We're saying we can get this deal done -- and if we can't get it done, we'll pay you $500."

He says that regardless of how credit-worthy the customer may be, "we are pretty confident that we have all the sub-prime capability and a host of different lenders in place to be able to take care of 100 per cent of his requirements."

HLC is a subsidiary of CIBC, one of Canada's largest banks. Charles says that clients in the sub-prime market currently go to a variety of different types of brokerages looking for a mortgage. "Some of these brokerages just focus their expertise on the sub-prime market. What HLC is trying to do is be a full-service broker -- from the A level of credit quality, right down to the C and D level of credit quality."

Another mortgage product designed to make home ownership easier is Scotiabank's (www.scotiabank.com) Cut Your Closing Costs Mortgage, which was introduced last spring. The bank teamed up with First Canadian Title to provide a program that includes the services of a lawyer/notary to answer the homebuyer's legal questions.

The mortgage also provides, at no cost, all standard legal fees and disbursements; all fees for the registration of the mortgage and title transfer; title insurance; the property appraisal fee for uninsured mortgage applications or the mortgage insurance application fee; home closing protection in case there is a delay in the closing; and a $500 cash rebate.

The product is available only for fixed-rate mortgages with a closed term of five years or longer at posted rates for resale properties.

Most other lenders now offer a variety of mortgage products and variable-rate options, cash-back offers and other flexible terms. There's never been a better time to go mortgage shopping in Canada.

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